When a 2,000-Year-Old Iberian Settlement was Unearthed, The Remnants Confirmed a Tragic Story of Bravery, Death, and Suicide
A legendary battle which remains one of the most iconic accounts of the brave struggles of native Iberian people took place in a small village in 134 BC. Faced with a powerful Roman legion, even their well-built hillfort could not save them from meeting their deaths at the end of a Roman sword.
Numantia is the hillfort where this devastating battle took place and it dates back to the Iron Age. It is located in the village of Garray, in the Spanish province of Soria, and knowledge of it comes from the writings of Roman author and historian, Pliny the Elder. Pliny wrote that the hillfort belonged to the Pellendones, a mysterious people that are believed to have been a mixture of Illyrians and Celts. However, according to Greek historians Ptolemy and Strabo, Numantia belonged to the Arevaci tribe, a mixture of Celts with native Iberian people. Modern researchers believe that both the Pellendones and the Arevaci were related to each other. Whoever they were, the inhabitants of Numantia became the main characters in a sad story about a crushing defeat at the hands of the Romans.
Roman Politics Before the Final Siege
The plan for conquering the Iberian Peninsula had endured for as long as the Roman Empire had existed – a land rich in fertile soil for agriculture, and other precious resources, could provide a crucial boost to the economy of an expanding empire. Moreover, control of the southern part of Iberia would allow control over the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, which was the ‘center of the world’ in antiquity.
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Territory of the Celtiberi tribe with the probable locations of its sub-groups. (Public Domain)
Before defeating the warriors in the hillfort, the Roman army had faced several severe failures. When in 137 BC, Roman consul Hostilius Mancinus has arrived for a campaign against Numantia, he panicked due to rumors about the strength of the enemy and accounts say he put out fires and tried to flee by night. Leaders of the Roman army in this region were called back to Rome to debate the situation in Spain. According to the University of Chicago website:
''The Senate was incredulous at this unprovoked renewal of hostilities and demanded to know why "after so many disasters had befallen them in Spain, Aemilius should be seeking a new war." Suffering from a lack of food, the Romans were compelled to retreat and desperately tried to decamp under cover of darkness. "Such was the confusion that they left behind everything, and even the sick and wounded, who clung to them and besought them not to abandon them." Only a lunar eclipse saved the Romans from being pursued. Lepidus was deprived of his command while still in the field (the first time that such an abrogation ever had occurred) and recalled to Rome in disgrace.''
The Roman army invading Numantia. (weaponsandwarfare)
During the debates, Mancinus pointed out that Roman consul Quintus Pompeius, the successor of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus in command of the Numantine War, was the one to be blamed. However, despite his attempts to lay the blame elsewhere, the senate decreed that Mancinus be sent back to Spain and symbolically delivered naked and bound to the Numantines. However, they refused to accept him. It was the beginning of the end for Numantia.
It is not known whether the historical records reporting on the number of Roman troops that arrived to conquer Numantia are accurate – often they are not. The most enthusiastic account suggested that there were 60,000 soldiers, but this is likely to be an overestimate. Nevertheless, what we can say with confidence is that the inhabitants of the hillfort never stood a chance and could only pray for quick death. The researchers from the University of Chicago continued:
''Clearly, the situation was becoming intolerable. There was more indecisive fighting until, in 134 BC, "the Roman people being tired of this Numantine war, which was protracted and severe beyond expectation," elected Scipio Aemilianus to end the war, the law being waived to allow him the consulship for a second time. Scipio had destroyed Carthage a dozen years before and, having learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, took with him only friends and volunteers, including (possibly) the Greek historian Polybius, whose lost account of the Numantine war was utilized by Appian in his own history. This was just as well, for the valor of the Celtiberians, relates Polybius, was such that "young men avoided enrolment, finding such excuses as it was disgraceful to allege, unseemly to examine, and impossible to check" (XXXV.4).''
The Ballad of the Brave Numantians
The leader of the Roman forces was the general Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who was the ‘hero’ of the Third Punic War. Scipio’s army created two camps next to the walls of the city, which is said to have been inhabited by around 4,000 people. The general knew that the citizens of Numantia should not be underestimated and could be very dangerous enemies.
The Numantians are said to have fought with the bravery of lions and the strength of elephants. However, in time they grew weary and could not sustain their strength against the Romans. Their most famous warrior, Rhetogenes, tried but failed to gather support from neighboring tribes.
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The siege lasted for somewhere between eight and sixteen months and, over time, the people of Numantia started to suffer due to the lack of food. It is reported that some were forced to turn to cannibalism, although this cannot be verified. The leader of the tribe attempted, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with Scipio. It was evident that after many decades, the brave Arevaci would have to surrender. Many chose to commit suicide rather than become slaves to the Romans. It is unknown how many Numantians survived.
By 133 BC, the siege and the history of the courageous Numantians had ended. The village was destroyed and the remnants of the settlement vanished to the pages of history. For the Romans, the site had become an important strategical point, but it was never resettled.
Jar with three spouts (1st century B.C.) in the Museo Numantino. (Public Domain)
The Shadow of Numantia
After nearly 2,000 years, the remnants of Numantia were finally identified by Eduardo Saavedra in 1860, and 22 years later, the 18-acre (7.35 ha) site was designated a national monument. The hillfort was unearthed during excavations between 1903 and 1912 by Adolf Schulten, revealing that ancient writers were indeed correct when they described the irregular shapes of the houses in the settlement.
A street corner in the ruins of Numantia. (CC BY 2.5)
The old village became a symbol of resistance to generations of Spaniards, and today the expressions ‘numantine resistance’ or ‘numantian defence’ refer to a desperate, suicidal last ditch stand of resistance. In the city of Soria, the museum called Museo Numantino presents the lasting remnants of the brave citizens of Numantia.
Lawrence Keppie, Professor Lawrence Keppie The Making of the Roman Army: From Republic to Empire, 2002.
The Celtiberian War, available at:
New Model Legion. The archaeology of Roman camps at Numantia, available at:
The siege of Numantia: how Scipio Aemilianus conquered the bravest of all cities by Duncan B Campbell, available at:
Rethinking Numantia (Soria, Spain): A Chronological Review of the Stratigraphic Sequence and the Celtiberian Pottery by Sergio A. Quintero Cabello, Raquel Liceras-Garrido, Alfredo Jimeno Martínez, and Antonio Chaín Galán, available at: